Women Business Owners Series: Drs. Kala and Maya Johnstone, Founders and Owners of FoodChasers’ Kitchen
As part of our Women Business Owners Series, we recently sat down with Kala and Maya Johnstone who founded Philadelphia-based FoodChasers’ Kitchen. Learn more about their unique founders’ story, how their Instagram followers’ have fueled their success and ways they are helping area schools and youth.
TL: What prompted you to start FoodChasers’ Kitchen after 20 years+ in the education field?
Maya and Kala: We first made a restaurant menu 15 years ago and never pursued it. After the pandemic when we were going back to school – we were both school principals – we were having a lot of meetings about academics and state testing. Instead of prepping students for tests, we wanted to really help students and teachers but weren’t able to because of the focus on state assessments.
That was the straw that broke the camel’s back. We went into Kala’s room, sat on her bed and decided we should quit and open a restaurant. We had already started an Instagram page before where we posted pictures of food we liked and food we’d made, and our very devoted followers had been telling us to open a restaurant. That this was the moment – it was now or never.
We had enough years in to retire so we knew would have some money coming in. Thankfully, Maya took care of the retirement documents and setting up the exit meeting. Kala investigated and found free business classes.
We started up our lease in the spring of 2021 and opened the restaurant in December the same year. Our two brothers helped us a lot with the renovation of the space, and they still help us a lot today.
TL: Can you tell us more about your menu and where customers can find it?
Maya and Kala: People can eat in the restaurant, order takeout and delivery online. We’ve hosted retirement and tea parties in our space, too. We offer catering for anyone – the majority of our catering has been with Philadelphia School District. Principals have ordered nice catering spreads to help with staff morale.
We serve breakfast and lunch Thursday through Sundays. Breakfast dishes include everything from catfish and grits to French toast topped with fruit or fried chicken tenders, maple chicken sausage, egg and cheese breakfast sandwiches, breakfast plates, biscuits and many others. Our lunch menu features a variety of cheesesteaks (salmon, mushroom, steak and a few others), fried shrimp, chicken, a two burgers. One of the burgers is named after our dad – IKE DID (ground beef, fried shrimp and lump crab).
TL: You all are obviously focused on making people happy (and full!). What do you do to make your customer experience special?
Maya and Kala: We make people feel like family. We live in the neighborhood where the restaurant is located, and our main customers are regular people who work hard for their money. 98% of our customers are African American women. We always say that people come in as customers and leave as family. Our brothers work with us, and they will go out to the dining room and talk with our customers and make friends. If we find out it’s someone’s birthday, we’ll do something special for them even if they don’t ask for it.
TL: How many people work for you right now?
Maya and Kala: In addition to the two of us in the kitchen, we have one other cook along with a cashier and waitress. If someone is out, we do their job too. And as we mentioned, our brothers help too.
TL: So how do you promote your restaurant and get people in the door?
Maya and Kala: We have zero marketing budget so thankfully our Instagram followers give us insane support. They generate a lot of buzz and customers. The food editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer wrote a detailed article about us and our family which helped. Gubernatorial candidate Josh Shapiro came in too.
A woman who works for Pepsi came in one day because she was looking to feature a black-owned restaurant in the Philadelphia area. The star of the commercial was Jalen Hurts who vowed to help us. He kept his promise and filmed his recent Thursday Night Football interview from our restaurant.
Our followers made our birthday wish come true by tagging Salt-N-Pepa in a video we posted in which we invited them to come eat at our restaurant. It worked – they came and stayed a few hours. They also left us backstage passes to the show and gave us a shout-out during it.
Another friend of ours – Andrew Wansel is a foodie and worked on Lizzo’s recent album. And he planned a dinner at our restaurant for her!
TL: FoodChasers’ Kitchen is obviously a mission-driven company. The concept of giving back to the community is very clear. How does social responsibility factor into your business?
Maya and Kala: In addition to the restaurant, we wanted to have a non-profit that helps students and teachers – we promised ourselves that we were going to do it. Schools don’t have the money to incentivize and reward students for things like honor roll, sports, perfect attendance, club participation – they have to raise their own funds. There’s a stat that 84% of teachers spend their own money on it.
So, we call schools and provide great food like seafood pasta, shrimp fried rice and a ton of other special meals to incentivize and reward the kids. We also want to give schools funds for de-escalation programs to help kids learn how to cope and offer spaces where they can calm down. We also provide money to help with senior class dues, class trips and other things some kids can’t afford.
TL: What is your favorite part of being entrepreneurs? What’s the most challenging part?
Maya and Kala: Our favorite part is that we took the plunge and did it. We’re so happy we created that vision 14 years ago. Learning the business part was probably the hardest. As I mentioned, Kala found the business classes to attend and we learned how to put a business plan together. We had to be prepared for unpredictable growth because most restaurants don’t make money in the first year. The charitable part of our business – providing food for schools and others – was something we knew from the beginning we weren’t taking out the plan.
The other really challenging part was getting funding. It’s not easy for women and, in particular, women of color to get capital loans. We went to our own bank and many other banks and were turned away. The non-profit aspect definitely made banks more reluctant to loan us money too. So, we decided to use a fundraising platform called iFundWomen and raise money ourselves. That helped with some of the money we needed and then thankfully our mom was able to give us some more.
TL: What advice do you have for women who are thinking about starting their own businesses?
Maya and Kala: Don’t sit on your dreams. Don’t wait. Make the plan and be prepared for things like vacancies that don’t fill. If you don’t find employees or they don’t come, you have to figure out a way to get things done. Overcoming challenges gives you faith you can do the next thing. You do it and then it’s OK – you get through it and keep moving.
TL: What are your plans for FoodChasers’ Kitchen in the future?
Our future plans are to expand our business into sporting arenas and open a sports bar in Philadelphia and other cities. We would also like to expand our non-profit to be global and get other restaurant owners to start similar non-profits in their areas.
Learn more about FoodChasers’ Kitchen (and stop by next time you’re in Philly!)
Read about more inspirational women business owners like Kala and Maya Johnstone.
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